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Guangxi strives to preserve local operas

Observing a caidiao opera being performed in south China's Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region can be a surreal experience.

Men and women in their 70s and 80s don costumes and makeup to appear as young couples in their 20s, all the while singing "colorful tunes" - the literal translation of caidiao - at the top of their lungs.

Local caidiao opera troupes aren't trying to amuse the audience by having the elderly play the young. The once popular tradition now fails to draw young performers and subsequently has a huge shortage of actors.

Originating from Guangxi's northern rural areas, caidiao opera, a traditional Chinese opera of the Han people, with distinctive ethnic features, boasts a history of roughly 250 years. Reflecting the life stories of ordinary people, the opera was once very popular among the public in Guangxi, and was even seen capturing audiences in Southeast Asian countries.

Sadly, as older generations of caidiao artists retire or pass away, this traditional art is facing a spate of problems that threaten its existence.

"Younger generations show no interest in this art. Some caidiao troupes offer stable jobs and decent salaries, yet it is very difficult to recruit young people," said Qin Mingde, a 60-year-old caidiao performer who was named an "inheritor of intangible cultural heritage" by government authorities.

Qin said in the northern part of Guangxi where caidiao opera is best preserved, it is difficult to spot young faces at a performance.

In Guangxi, only one college offers a caidiao opera education program, which does not regularly recruit students. Most caidiao are trained in short-term courses arranged by cultural authorities.

According to Chang Jianjun, president of the Guangxi Dramatists Association, there are some 2,000 amateur caidiao groups in Guangxi's rural areas, and only three professional caidiao troupes in regional cities.

"With today's diversity of cultural programs in the market, caidiao is losing its appeal among audiences," Chang said.

China's cultural authorities have taken measures to revive the opera, listing it as a state-level intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

Chang Jianjun said caidiao artists should update scripts, produce shows that reflect modern life and renovate the form's artistic conception and stage presentation to survive cutthroat competition.

"Authorities should ramp up efforts to cultivate younger generations for caidiao opera," he added.

To keep the culture robust, caidiao artists are trying to give the traditional art some modern flavor.

In November, Qin Mingde directed a 22-minute film featuring caidiao shows, attempting to draw more attention from younger generations. "Caidiao opera is a precious cultural heritage, and we shoulder the responsibility to pass it on," he said.